THE SATURDAY ESSAY: Will we ever know why Seahenge was built?

Seahenge: The internationally-famous timber circle discovered at Holme in the 1990s.

Seahenge: The internationally-famous timber circle discovered at Holme in the 1990s. - Credit: NORFOLK MUSEUM SERVICE

When part of Norfolk's Seahenge goes on loan to the British Museum, thousands more will marvel at its mystery. But as fresh debate over the timber circle begins, Chris Bishop wonders if we will ever know its purpose.


Footsteps from the long lost past fade into the mists of time on a windswept beach.

More than 4,000 years ago, ancient people built oak circles on the shore at Holme next Sea.

Holme Beach

Holme Beach, where Seahenge was discovered late in 1998 - Credit: Graham Dunn

But almost 25 years since the timbers and other fragments of our ancestors' lives were revealed by the shifting sands, our tap of knowledge has long since run dry.

We know when, but we don't now why. And will we ever have enough pieces of the puzzle to crack the enigma that is Seahenge?

Storms lash the remote beach beyond the dunes at Holme, near Hunstanton, when the winter gales blow in from the north.

Late in 1998, the tide carried away tonnes of sand, revealing underlying peat. Fickle beaches come and go along Norfolk's brittle coastline.

Wendy George's photo of Seahenge which was discovered on Holme Beach.

Wendy George's photo of Seahenge which was discovered on Holme Beach. - Credit: Wendy George

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But the black beds that lay under sheets of sand had stood their ground for thousands of years, guarding even older secrets.   

The tips of a timber circle could be seen at low tide, surrounding an upturned tree stump with its roots pointing skywards.

Controversy engulfed the beach the following year, after scientists decided to excavate the relic to study it.

Villagers and druids wanted the circle to be left in place, for fear digging it up would destroy its ancient magic.

Buster Nolan and project manager Dr Bill Boismeyer come face to face at Seahenge Picture: Brian Wa

Buster Nolan and project manager Dr Bill Boismeyer come face to face at Seahenge Picture: Brian Waite

Protestors sat on the central stump in a last-ditch bid to stop the spades. But their cries and songs could not stand in the way of science.

Archaeology won the day. The timbers were carted away to be studied and eventually preserved for posterity, before going on display at King's Lynn Museum.

The circle was built in the spring or early summer of 2049BC. Its posts bore the marks of more than 50 different axes.

Archaeologists haul a timber out of the beach at Holme Picture: John Hocknell

Archaeologists haul a timber out of the beach at Holme Picture: John Hocknell - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

That showed more people owned axes and that society was more organised than had previously been believed in the  early Bronze Age.

What the science didn't show was why a community would join forces to build the circle.

Fast forward 4,000 years and we know who invented the wheel, the aeroplane, the telephone or the internet.

Yet the origins of the earliest technologies of them all are as mysterious as Seahenge.

It's all over - the central stump of Seahenge is removed on July 16, 1999 Picture: John Hocknell

It's all over - the central stump of Seahenge is removed on July 16, 1999 Picture: John Hocknell

Thousands of years ago, people lit fires for warmth, to cook over or to drive away hostile animals.

Then someone noticed a liquid that came from certain types of rocks that could be poured.

And so metal would go on to forge civilisation, bringing tools, weapons and riches.

Seahenge came in the early Bronze Age, after the discovery that mixing two metals together made a much stronger axe head.

The Seahenge exhibition at the Lynn Museum in King's Lynn. Pictured is the great central stump. Pict

Seahenge is on display at Lynn Museum - Credit: Ian Burt

Yet it existed in a landscape where thought and language were so far removed from our own that they might as well have come from another world.

We might never be able to understand the beliefs of our forbears or the words they used to express them and pass them down through the generations.

There were no hieroglyphics or runes carved on the timbers of Seahenge. No recipes for forging axe heads, or insight into who or what they might have worshipped have ever been found.

This is why we may never, ever get it. One theory has it that the timber circle may have been built as a site for so-called sky burial, where an important person's corpse might have been placed on the central stump to be carried away into the heavens by carrion eating birds.

Seahenge at low tide before its excavation Picture: John Hocknell

Seahenge at low tide before its excavation Picture: John Hocknell

Seahenge isn't really a henge at all - at least not in the same sense as Stonehenge, which stands on the western side of the country on Salisbury Plain and pre-dates it by a few centuries.

The name was actually first coined by two EDP journalists, not by archaeologists, amid a lively debate in the office over what to call it.

But Seahenge may have had other links to the ritualised landscape of ancient Wessex, with its great stone circles and barrows or burial mounds.

I say may, because we will never now know for certain what links it may have had to a culture so far removed from ours.

For the remains of the so-called Holme 2 - a second, larger circle which emerged alongside Seahenge, were never explored or excavated before they were claimed by the sea.

The second circle at Holme Beach, which scientists now say was linked to Seahenge. Picture: NPS Arch

The second circle at Holme Beach, which scientists now say was linked to Seahenge. Picture: NPS Archaeology. - Credit: Archant

The prevailing theory was that this could have been the remains of a barrow, a burial mound where two central logs formed a bier. 

Its posts were inter-twined by thinner branches and there appeared to be concentric circles.   

Scientists said it was built at the same time, after dating its timbers. So the two must certainly have been connected and conceived for a common purpose.

Perhaps Seahenge was a memorial, built in tribute to whoever lay within the barrow. Perhaps it was something completely different, as yet beyond our comprehension.

Yet an opportunity to shine a light further into our ancient past was passed over when the powers that be decided not to order a second dig.

CAPTION; General View of Holme beach, where Sea Henge was found.PHOTO; Matthew UsherCOPY; Chris

Timbers protrude from the beach at Holme, where Seahenge was discovered - Credit: Matthew Usher

Over the next few winters, the second circle was lost to the tides. Other posts, perhaps the remains of an ancient walkway had also been seen.

Out in the nearby North Sea, the remains of Doggerland - a once rich landscape which connected us to northern Europe - lie under the waves.

Flooded by rising sea levels around 4,000 years before the Seahenge timbers were felled, it may hold more clues to how we evolved as the ancients turned from being hunter gatherers to farmers who settled the land and began to adapt it to their needs.

Seahenge was found on the modern-day foreshore, where the land meets the sea. It may always stand between where what little we know of our ancient past meets wonders we may never understand.


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